The Best Author You’ve Never Read Vol. 7: Michael Stackpole

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Looks like he’s going to a convention. Which he probably is.

I have a thing for licensed fiction. There’s something about crafting a well-written story within an already defined and structured universe that makes it seem like more than half of your work is done for you, its true. And yes, the fan-boy rocks do occasionally fly. But I imagine contributing a piece to a much larger canon still feels worthwhile, and may even be more satisfying if its a license you love.

Michael Stackpole has made a career out of this. And a very lucrative career at that.

A life-long RPG nerd, my first contact with Mr. Stackpole came in the form of the beloved Rogue Squadron series, a set of four incredibly fun novels featuring Wedge Antilles (Please remember him from the first movies. If you don’t I’ll feel old) and the elite pilot team interspersed through out the trilogy, the literary canon, and several memorable video game titles. At the time of their release (mid-late 1990’s) Star Wars was hitting a bit of a renaissance with the much-anticipated release of volumes 1-3. We all know how that went. No need to walk across that particular bed of shattered dreams here.

We’re on the cusp of yet another Star Wars theatrical renaissance here in 2015, and it looks like the results might be a bit better this time around. My only hope (rimshot) is some of the top-notch Star Wars books may get an injection of interest, and Stackpole’s name should be at the top of the list. Hence, this recommendation. He’s also written books in Battletech, World of Warcraft and Shadowrun settings as well, all very fantastic and good reads.

He’s not just a nerd putting words on paper, however. Stackpole has a talent for developing interesting and in-depth characters, or in many cases accurately expanding upon characters you already know. Three main reasons you should check out both Stackpole’s licensed work and his original inventions, both graphic and prose:51gl85BSDeL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_513176

  1. Characters – Hands down he creates or expands on some of the best protagonists and antagonists in science fiction history. Even fan favorites liked Wedge Antilles take on a life of their own in Stackpole’s narrative. They feel real, flawed, and interesting without sacrificing any of the cool we love so dearly.
  2. Fantastic Detail – This guy can paint a picture with his words. A key asset for any science fiction writer, he manages to create and describe unique settings and established ones with equal precision. The galaxy far, far away in Rogue Squadron  and the fantastic pseudo-America from Crown Colonies both feel equally real and tangible
  3. Fun – The plots aren’t overly complicated, the twists and turns aren’t exactly hidden or unexpected. He lets the characters come to the forefront and drive the story, and takes the reader along with them. Sometimes, that simple, straightforward text is just what we need for a 350-page vacation from the real world.

I like Stackpole a lot. Between Rogue Squadron and Battletech he wrote some of the coolest stories I read as a burgeoning sci-fi nerd. I’m a bit older now and realize his books don’t exactly stack up to Gatsby or War & Peace, but that’s ok. He’s an enjoyable read when you want to spend some time away from reality.

Signing Off.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Review

17026_413852478709121_1163712783_nNeil Gaiman is a master craftsman. Somehow he has an ability to take words and shape them into strings of ideas that make you feel whole and empty all in the same breath. And he has the bloody nerve to make it feel effortless and easy. I sometimes hate him when I read his work, but love the work itself. Then I get over it and read the next one. Which led me to The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

It’s a shorter work, less than 200 pages all told. According to an afterword it started as a short story but mutated into a novella as he wrote it (Do you see why I occasionally hate this guy?). The brevity gives this novel an intensity that was not present in his more renowned work. Sandman and American Gods are fairly long works with very determinate paces, but with Ocean he manages the time well, and focuses on the emotions tied into the prose rather than mythological references or backstory.

The tight, focused narrative keeps a reader on the edge of their seat, and since its Gaiman the mythological and fantastic play a role, but a small one, definitively ancillary to the experience of the protagonist. Terrifying in parts, heartwarming in others, the pay-off at the end of the book seemed a little anti-climactic, but even that may have been intentional. The joy of Ocean at the End of the Lane is decidedly in the journey, and experiencing a small, fantastic glimpse into the life of a little boy.

I won’t bore you with plot summary, but there is an element of Science Fiction and Fantasy that Neil Gaiman handles in typically (and infuriatingly) precise fashion. Some of the more magical characters in Ocean can essentially “cut” pieces of time out of reality and sew them back together, essentially eliminating events from universal consciousness. Most other writers would see this as a cheap, Deus ex-level of cheat, especially when the climax includes an “It was all a dream” element. Gaiman takes you through every painstaking part of the memory, and then cuts it out. I wanted to feel cheated and cheapened, but the way he handles it wouldn’t allow me to. Remember how I said empty and whole in the opening paragraph? That’s exactly how you feel when you’ve read this book.

Fucking Neil Gaiman. If you’re a bibliophile, you’ll really appreciate this book, and find it immensely quotable. Even if you hate books (in which case why the hell are you reading this?) he has some great prose moments in this story:

“I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.”

“I lay on the bed and lost myself in stories. I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyway.”

“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children stories. They were better than than that. They just were.”

“You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.”

I particularly like that last one. I could list more but…you’ll have to read the book. Ha.

Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quiet yet moving short fiction piece that everyone, not just Gaiman fans, will enjoy. If you were ever a little kid (and I hope you were, at some point) , you’ll be able to relate to the emotional turmoil and desire for escape present on every single page.

I give this book 2-out-of-2 middle fingers straight up in the air. Because seriously Neil, fuck you. Stop making it look so easy. The rest of us are developing a complex.

Signing off.

Opining in the Octagon, September 2015: Holly “Hype-Check” Holm vs. Ronda Rousey

OI’m a big MMA fan, so occasionally (at least once per month) I’ll give you all my opinion on a big story in the UFC or Mixed Martial Arts world. And you’ll read it. Because I said so.

September 2015: Can Holly Holm be the Hype-Check challenger for the merciless juggernaut that is Ronda Rousey?

I think she has a chance. There’s a precedent for this in the UFC, when a dominant champion seems to be tearing through a weight-class only to get hype-checked by a seemingly innocuous challenger:

  1. Matt Serra knocked out George St. Pierre (who used to be a fighter, I swear it) at UFC 69 to win the welterweight title. Serra was just supposed to be another can for the GSP train to eat and discard, but the french-canadian champ looked like he was going through the motions, and a shot to the chin put him down, and put the belt around a chubby, undersized Long Island native’s waist. St. Pierre would get the belt back, and pummel Serra in their rematch at UFC 83, but Serra is still the only loss he suffered while holding the welterweight title.

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    Even he couldn’t believe it happened. And he was there.

  2. This one wasn’t for a title, but when Mauricio “Shogun” Rua made the move to the UFC from Pride FC, he was supposed to roll through the light heavyweight division and get  a shot at then-champion Rampage Jackson. The problem was he had to go through Forrest Griffin to get there. Griffin made a statement for all UFC fighters, and started his own climb to the top of the division by slapping on a rear naked choke at the end of the third round. Rua looked unprepared to take on the hard-charging Griffin, and got stung for his overconfidence. His UFC career never quite matched the success he had in Pride.

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    The beginning of the end for Shogun Rua.

  3. Back in March, Anthony Pettis had a lot going for him: He was the first UFC athlete on a Wheaties box, won the lightweight title by being the only person on the planet (at the time) who could beat Benson Henderson, and had defended the title against a game Gilbert Melendez three months earlier. Then he ran into Rafael Dos Anjos, who pushed him around the cage for 25 minutes, busted his eye, and won a unanimous decision to take the lightweight title. Pettis didn’t look cocky, but he did look human. Time will tell if this was a hype-check, or a changing of the guard.

    DALLAS, TX - MARCH 14:  Rafael dos Anjos, top fights with Anthony Pettis in the Lightweight Title bout during the UFC 185 event at American Airlines Center on March 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

    The theme for the fight. Busted eye came later.

Ronda Rousey may have more going on than any of the aforementioned upsetees (It’s a term). She’s thinking about starring in her own autobiographical movie, is waging a futile but entertaining war of words with Floyd Mayweather, and can’t get away from the speculation about a super-fight with Cyborg Justino in the future. Rather than throw Miesha Tate back into the meat grinder to see if she can last 60 seconds this time, the UFC decided to make Holly Holm, a relative MMA unknown, the next victim while we all wait for Cyborg to figure out the right diet plan to make 135 lbs.082115-UFC-Ronda-Holm-PI-SW.vadapt.620.high.0

But, in my humble opinion, Holm isn’t just another victim, to paraphrase a pro wrestling legend. She’s a hunter herself, just with different stripes. She might be the most decorated boxer and kick-boxer in the UFC (man or woman) and is undeniably the female fighter with the best boxing pedigree in the sport. Her boxing record of 33 wins (9 KOs, 23 decisions), 2 losses, and 3 draws is incredible on its own, and coupled with 18 championships in 3 weight classes, its downright stellar. She also won an amateur kickboxing title in 2001, and has a litany of other awards for her boxing achievements.hi-res-b80dad6585ea1ade385842a3175670c8_crop_north

Her young MMA career is less extensive but just as impressive, with 9 wins (6 KOs, 3 decisions) and no losses spread across several different promotions, with two decision wins against UFC competition.

Wow. Two UFC fights. And both were decisions. Why in the hell do I think this woman, impressive as she is, can survive against the most dominant athlete in the world?d01_jd_05apr_holm2-640x430

It’s the reading between the lines of each win, adding up the sum of her career, and seeing her fighting style that has me (and several others with way more knowledge than me) smelling an upset. Holm is dangerous with her hands and her feet, as some of her MMA knockouts came from head kicks, leg kicks, and body kicks. She’s also patient, as evidenced by the decision-heavy boxing record. If she was a berserker-rage type boxer, Rousey would chew her up, lock in an armbar, and spit her out, probably in less than a minute. But Holly Holm is a stalker, content to pick and chose her strikes, keeping her range extended with her feet, and then moving in for the kill when she smells blood.0039_workout_Ronda_Rousey.0.0

Rousey has been improving her striking game, evidenced by two very quick TKOs in her last three fights. Against Correia her striking looked good but still technically a bit shaky. Hands were dropped, people. I saw. If she gets Holm on the ground, it’s probably a done deal. But Judo (Rousey’s main discipline), especially in a sans-gi, skin-heavy environment like the UFC, does require getting up-close and personal to a clinch position before initiating a throw. Holm has the experience and skill to keep Ronda out of range, and the striking finesse to punish her if she does get in close. And The Preacher’s Daughter (Holm’s rather wordy nickname) is not someone Rousey wants to stand with.index

With some headlines and articles intimating fans are getting bored with shelling out the money for a Pya-Per-View then watching Ronda Rousey win in less than a minute, and professional athletes like Lolo Jones stating they could make the magic 60-second mark, you might be tempted to turn away from UFC 193 in two months. Hell, if the fight lasts 14 seconds, you can catch nearly the whole thing on ESPN the next week. This fight, at the very least, will be worth the money. It won’t be over in 30 seconds. It won’t be over in the first round. These are my bold predictions.

At least I can’t be wrong for two months.

Signing off.